New Orleans How can I say this plainly? Electric cooperatives have become increasingly less cooperative, and, frankly, not even all that electric. What was a huge breakthrough in taking electricity the last mile into rural areas through cooperative efforts in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s efforts to meet the challenges of the Great Depression in the United States, are now from the research reported by ACORN International and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center, largely unrepresentative of their communities in the areas of race, ethnicity, and gender, and often blatantly undemocratic and dominated by high-priced managers and bought-and-paid board members. The effort to take broadband internet “the last mile,” might just be the challenge – and opportunity – to shake the dust and cobwebs off rural electric cooperatives and return them to their roots, while delivering huge benefits to rural communities and their residents.
There have been some path breakers among rural electric cooperatives that have recognized that these 20th century institutions need to meet the challenge of the 21st century. More than sixty around the country have already installed high-speed fiber optics and another almost eighty are in process of doing so.
Ironically, there have been challenges in Louisiana. The cooperative in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana tried to extend its membership benefits to include broadband internet and now finds itself in the middle of a lawsuit between the Louisiana Electric Co-ops and the elected Public Service Commission. The usually populist PSC, which has recently made progress in forcing cooperatives accountability, seems to have balked at the local cooperative offering twice the speed at half the cost of what other programs were touting.
The FCC has announced a $20 billion dollar program with $16 billion going in the first auction of monies to those bidders willing to add service in the census tracks around the country without broadband. When the FCC releases the eligible census tracks, invariably rural electric cooperatives are likely the obvious choices to get the assistance, implement the system, and make it sustainable even after the ten-year grants are exhausted.
Mississippi has recently enacted a law that would allow their twenty-five cooperatives to install broadband internet. It goes without saying that doing so puts them near the head of the line when it comes to the FCC funding process as well. The Louisiana Legislature has a Broadband High-Speed Internet Service Task Force that is holding hearings and putting the heat on all of the players to speed up their game in this area. It’s a national debate, but even the often slow-on-the-uptake southern cooperatives and their political supporters seem to be getting the word that this is an opportunity.
Probably, they heard the news through the internet. Seems like this is an opportunity for rural electric cooperatives to spread the word that way as well, and perhaps remember their mission in serving their members in rural counties and parishes around the country.